Movie Philosophy: Fight Choreography

And a 1… and a 2… and a…

Today’s Topic:
Fight Choreography

When talking about Fight Choreography, it is easy to say that “lately fight scenes aren’t as good as they used to be”. And it’s not like it’s even wrong per say. It’s also easy to point at things like Shaky Cam and whatnot as the sole culprit.

Watch out, everybody! The camera man is drunk!

But as annoying and nauseating as Shaky Cam might be, in the end that’s just a RESULT of bad fight choreography.

To TRULY battle bad fight choreography, you have to look a liiittle bit deeper.

Shaky Cam is just a TOOL, after all. It IS possible to do Shaky Cam right, which I’ll get into later. But like any other film making tools like Wide Shots, Slow Motion, Close-Ups, Long Takes, etc. there is a time and a place for everything.

Choreography

So, what IS Fight Choreography at it’s core?

Fight Choreography is, simply put, planning out a fight scene to LOOK GOOD. Your definition of “Good” can vary. Either you want it to match the emotions going on with the characters, or maybe you want to make it raw and visceral. Heck, maybe you want the fight to look pretty, have it be poetry in motion.

The point is that Fight Choreography is based on PLANNING. You PLAN OUT the way the fight is going to go; when a punch is going to happen and how the other character reacts to that punch. You plan out how to move the characters through the environment the fight takes place in and how they make use of the props around them.

As silly as it may sound, it’s NOT that different from DANCE Choreography.

Fight Sequences may generally be more adversarial compared to Musical Sequences due to it’s very nature of it involving… you know… FIGHTING, but yet again that’s the RESULT.

The RESULT of Fight Choreography usually ends with a scene of OPPOSING forces beating the crap out of each other, while the RESULT of Dance Choreography usually ends with a scene of people expressing their thoughts and emotions.

But behind the scenes it really isn’t that different. Camera Operators, Stunt People, Fight Choreographers and Actors still REHEARSE together to tell a story.

They practice the same moves over and over to get what’s written in the script across on the screen.

They go through the environment and plan ahead what the actors will interact with and where the camera is going to be placed when they do it.

And inevitably there’s gonna be a lot of bloopers where they need to get back up from messing up a move.

Expression

I think the big problem with Fight Choreography in a lot of movies has less to do with the tools they use, and more to do with the fact that most movies nowadays don’t see fighting as a form of expression like they do with Musical Sequences.

Musicals are inherently about expressing a wide range of emotions, that’s what the songs establish after all. Everything that used to be inside is now laid bare to be represented on the outside on the surface. So of course Hollywood Producers see Musical Sequences as something to put money into to get it right.

Fight Sequences have wide ranges of emotions as well, but Hollywood Producers don’t see anything more than “aggression” when they see Fight Sequences. The hero must defeat the villain. Done.

They forget that Fight Sequences have a story to tell as well. HOW does the hero defeat the villain?

Look past the hilarious dubbing and instead focus on what Jackie Chan’s character is going through during this fight. He is losing because Benny the Jet is just a better technical fighter.

It’s when he loosens up and says to himself “Relax, see it like a training session” that Jackie slowly gets the upperhand.

And it’s not told through some kind of longwinded dialogue like:

“Oh nay, that gent is defeating me.
If ‘t be true only I wouldst loosen up and act liketh this is a training session.
Yond wouldst turneth things ’round for I shall defeat that gent on mine owneth turf rath’r than fighting on his.”

Shakespearean Jackie Chan

It is instead told through action. You see him pull up that chair and sit down like it’s a training session, he takes the time to take rests and he responds to Benny’s moves like a sparring partner would.

Bad Editing

“Well, that’s not fair. That movie has Jackie Chan in it, so the fight sequences are automatically good!”, I hear you say (one of many reasons I have a reservation at an asylum).

Actually, no, at the end of the day Jackie Chan is just a piece of the puzzle.

Depending on the movie he’s working on, he might be a BIGGER piece of the puzzle, since he’s one of those actors who works very closely with the stunt team.

But there’s a lot of movies where he’s mostly just the acting talent and it’s someone else‘s job to do the editing and camera work.

As an example, this fight from “The Spy Next Door” may have some of the surface level stuff of Jackie Chan fights (like using every day items to fight enemies in a funny way), but there are constant cuts from one camera angle to another and there’s no real “rhythm” to the fight.

Between every cut Jackie gets to perform at most 2 actions. Saves up rehearsal time if in each shot you only need to do 1 or 2 things.

And the constant cutting is not some trick to hide Jackie’s inability to fight or the like, something a lot of films do with other actors.

Clearly Jackie CAN fight. But even a skilled fighter like Jackie needs time to rehearse, time that not all producers want to spend the money for.

Yes, I’m showing this again because I’d like to point out that the looping of this GIF pretty much exposes the fact that ANY of these shots barely follow up from one another and it’s ACTUALLY difficult to pinpoint WHEN the GIF actually STARTS!

This amongst other things is in fact why Shaky Cam has become so prevalent.

By shaking the camera you basically hide the simplistic and unprofessional movements of the actors and replace it with a nauseating and more “visceral” feeling.

In the eyes of a producer that means more “raw” emotion AND it’s cheaper to do than having the actors rehearse!

Win-Win for the Producers!
(And Lose-Lose to actual Action Enthusiasts…)

With Producers looking at Fight Sequences with such a simplistic view, of course all they think about is whether it’s “realistic”. They’d argue that REAL fighting doesn’t HAVE pre-planned techniques or pretty poses and whatnot.

But the pursuit of “realism” is really misguided, especially when it comes to film. People seem to confuse “realism” for “believability”, and yes they’re different.

“Believability” simply means that you can suspend your disbelief to enter into the fictional world that the movie presents to you.

You BELIEVE that a character feels a certain emotion to the other, you BELIEVE that a character just hit another character and that it hurts. You BELIEVE that a character has died.

“Realism” is a true reflection of life, but that would come with all the little annoyances.

There are no cuts in real life, every event drones on undisturbed. People also don’t emote as clearly in real life as they do in film.

And a REAL fight usually doesn’t take any longer than half a minute, with both people usually huddled together in a ball.

You also don’t see characters constantly stutter in film like they do in real life, right? That’s because characters speaking fluently works for CLARITY.

Clarity

And that’s another thing, Fight Scenes need CLARITY. Shaky Cam deliberately HIDES the action and trades it off with pure aggression. But when you have talented actors who can pull off the most amazing moves and you hire them in your movie, we’d like to be able to SEE it!

“The One” starring Jet Li may not be a perfect movie (besides double-role shenanigans, a lot of the special effects didn’t age well), but it understands how to add clarity to the fight. Which is pretty dang important when it’s a movie with two Jet Lis fighting each other.

The heroic Jet Li (Gabe Law) keeps his black jacket on while the villainous Jet Li (Gabriel Yulaw) has his grey shirt underneath visible.

Even from a distance, you’re easily able to keep them apart.

The fight as a whole has a story to tell as well. See, the characters don’t just differ in how they dress themselves, they also differ in their actual fighting styles.

If we were to compare Fight Scenes to Musical Scenes again, then the fighting styles of the characters would be the music genres you assign to the characters in a musical.

Sonic is energetic and lives free. It is perfectly represented by the upbeat tone of the song.
By contrast, Shadow’s song represents how he’s haunted by his past.

Just like you would assign a music genre to a character so you can express their personality as they dance and/or sing, so too can you assign a fighting style to a fighting character to express THEIR personality as they fight.

Xing Yi Quan

Gabriel Yulaw uses Xing Yi Quan, a fighting style that mainly works in a single straight line.

It demonstrates the kind of person he is, being single-minded in his pursuit of killing all of his Multiverse Counterparts so he can become “The One”.

This is why he wins in the first part of the fight, as Gabe Law is the only Multiverse Counterpart left alive. He is THIS close to his goal. And it’s represented through the environment they start their fight in, linear scaffolding. Gabe is stuck in the same line as Yulaw, being unable to exit out of this linear environment.

Baguazhang

Gabe Law uses Baguazhang, a fighting style that’s more circular and makes use of the fact that you basically surround your opponent.

This demonstrates the kind of person he is, someone who needs to find a center to be whole. He always felt like he was destined to be part of something greater, and at the start of the fight he thought it’s to take revenge against Yulaw for killing his wife.

But after losing the first part, when they’re away from the scaffolding and ended up in a more open space, that’s when he was able to recontextualize. He no longer tries to fight Yulaw through anger and rage, because that would be fighting on Yulaw’s turf. Instead he chooses to stay tranquil, making use of the space around them to negate Yulaw’s linear fighting style.

Budget

Now, I can nerd out all over the different fighting styles represented by the characters, but it may give the impression that to have a good fight sequence you NEED to have a skillful martial artist to pull it off. But that’s not true.

The problem isn’t the lack of actors having the ability to fight. The problem is the confidence of the studios to give the actors TIME to film these amazing fights.

Like Jackie Chan, Jet Li isn’t immune from being in lousily edited fights either.

YOU GOT JET LI AND MICHELLE YEOH IN YOUR MOVIE!!!!
HERO VS CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON!!!!
STOP CUTTING ALL THE DAMN TIME!!!!!

There may be some people who would like to point out that it’s a difference between Chinese and American Studios.

That Chinese Studios realize the importance of giving the creators enough of a budget to allow them to make their fight scenes as good as they can, with all the retakes they need.

American Studios meanwhile don’t want to spend that much money on things that may be “unnecessary” and thus prefer to spend their money on Special Effects and CGI.

Now, again, there is SOME truth to that, but it’s still a generalization. It really depends on the studio, whether they’re American OR Chinese.

Oh look, an AMERICAN film with good fight sequences!

Still, you could argue it’s still a bit unfair for MOST Hollywood Producers to resort to so many cost-cutting measures in Fight Choreography when Dance Choreographers get to have the budget to do THIS:

Still love this opening, though.

Tools

So am I saying all fights need to be Long Takes to be good? No, don’t be ridiculous, I don’t want ALL Fight Sequences to end up being the Hospital Scene of Hard Boiled.

Even if it WOULD be awesome to see more scenes like these.

As difficult as people seem to be make it out to be, honestly the techniques used for Fight Choreography is not that foreign from regular Film Choreography. You’re still thinking about what’s IN the frame and what’s OUT of the frame (Mise-en-scène).

Long Takes, just like Slow-Motion, Cutting and yes even Shaky Cam are TOOLS. They’re not INHERENTLY good or bad. You just need to figure out what each of those tools actually DO.

Long Takes can either create a sense of amazement or a sense of dread. Because of the lack of cuts, your attention stays with the characters the whole time.

This can either mean you’re given the time to take in the fantastic moves of the characters OR it could mean you empathize with the horror and dread they’re feeling as they’re going through a gauntlet of enemies.

As a contrast, Fast Cuts can keep the energy up. Edgar Wright makes great use of it for comedy as it tightens up the jokes as they happen one after another.

Excessive use of cutting may make it slightly incomprehensible (though not on the same level as Shaky Cam), but if you have a Set-Up, Build-Up and Punchline WITH those fast cuts then the jokes can be enhanced by the tighter timing and pacing.

I’d like to note that The Raid actually uses Handheld Cam rather than Shaky Cam. There’s actually a difference (Handheld Cam means you’re naturally holding the camera without a tripod and Shaky Cam ADDS shakes intentionally), but in the end they both kinda go for the same effect, which is why I picked this clip.

Slow-motion and Shaky Cam is about emphasis. It emphasizes raw strength and/or aggression.

With Slow-motion, you can put yourself in the position of the character who either through super powers or pure andrenaline can see the world slow down as they start moving faster than the eye can see.

With Shaky Cam it’s almost like you’re in the chaos of the fight itself. The nauseating nature of the fight suddenly affects your vision as well, and you basically FEEL like you’re in the middle of a brutal beat down.

Of course, BECAUSE they’re all about emphasis, you can’t have a Fight Sequence be nothing BUT emphasis.

The way I see it, Long Takes are the text you type in a document. It can keep going as long as you want, but the longer and longer you make it, you put more and more attention to the fact that this is a long paragraph. Eventually you get kinda stuck and you never want to cut because you’ve already gotten this far. Why stop, right? Now you just add filler to the text just so you can keep going even though the point has already been made, but I just want to keep going and going! Have I made my point clear enough? Because I can keep going, you know. Heck, I might actually go back to all the previous paragraphs and see if I can delete some enters here and there just to sadistically have fun with this. It kinda drives you mad as you’re just waiting for someone to finally CU-…!

A cut on the other hand readjusts your eyes, giving the viewer something new to look at.

But

if

you

do

it

constantly

it

gets

kinda

annoying, doesn’t it?

By that logic, since Slow-Motion and Shaky Cam are about emphasis I’d compare it to when you start CAPITALIZING STUFF!

SURE IT CREATES IMPACT BUT IF EVERYTHING IS CAPITALIZED THEN THERE’S JUST NOTHING TO EMPHASIZE ANYMORE! YOU NEED CONTRAST TO GET YOUR POINT ACROSS!! WITHOUT PEAKS AND VALLEYS YOU BASICALLY END UP WITH A FLAT PLANE!!!!

Conclusion

For Fight Sequences to be taken seriously again, we as creators need to understand that they’re not something to half-ass. They’re opportunities to tell a story mostly through visuals and you should actually think more deeply about how to TELL your story through the fight scene.

Familiarize yourself with the tools and don’t just over-use one trick just because of it’s popularity (even if the popularity has less to do with the audience and more to do with the producers…).

Like everything in the movie business, money is important. You can’t make a good Fight Sequence if you don’t put in the money needed to allow the talents to rehearse and plan everything out.

Hopefully one day Hollywood will take Fight Sequences just as seriously as they do Musical Sequences and actually give creators the money needed to make great Fight Choreography a norm rather than an exception.

Published by Huy Minh Le

Huy Minh Le is a Video Game Enthusiast, Movie Lover, Writer, Content Marketeer and regular TvTropes reader! His studies in Game Design, Art, and Writing has led to a very creative, yet analytical mind.

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